Leeks: Peeling back the layers of flavor

Written by Yvonne Tarantelli

Leeks are members of the Allium family along with onions and garlic, and have been used by various groups of people all over the world for thousands of years. Originally from Central Asia, they were a staple in Egyptian, Greek and Roman cuisines, and are now loved around the world.

In France, leeks are used much as green onions are used in the United States today. In Wales, leeks are a national emblem – and people wear them every March 1st, on St. Davids Day, as a symbol of good luck. In the US leeks are routinely used in restaurants – but often consumers at farmers markets don’t know exactly how to prepare them.

Market to Fridge
You’ll start to see sizable leeks making an appearance at Ithaca Farmers Market in early fall – and because they store well, you’ll see them on stands throughout the winter and sometimes all the way into the spring. Leeks store well in the refrigerator for up to two weeks and can also be sliced and frozen for up to 5 months.

Flavor & Uses
Leeks have a milder and sweeter taste compared to their famous family members, onions and garlic. When raw they have a firm, crunchy texture that is great in salads. When sautéed in oil or boiled, they become milder in flavor and softer in texture.

The white section of leeks is what most recipes call for, although the tougher green leaves can be used for stock. Leeks are often used as an aromatic to build flavor in recipes, but can also be served whole as a side dish. Chopped leeks are an excellent substitution for onions or shallots in pasta dishes, quiches, stir-fry, risotto, soups and even as a pizza topping.

Cooking & Prep
Leeks grow as a bundle of leaves overlapping to form the main stem, so dirt tends to get trapped between the layers. When preparing; begin by slicing off the roots on the bottom and cutting off the tough green leaves at the top. Cut the remaining piece in half lengthwise and then chop thin half-moon slices. Place slices in a bowl filled with fresh, cool water. Rinse until no dirt remains. If using leeks whole, rinse under running water while fanning the layers to remove any dirt.

If you’re not much of a recipe follower, and want to cook leeks on the fly, a low and slow sauté will bring out their sweet, tender flavors. Grab some leeks this weekend!

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